For Such a Time

K ATE BRESLIN

5

© 2014 by Kathryn Breslin Published by Bethany House Publishers 11400 Hampshire Avenue South Bloomington, Minnesota 55438 www.bethanyhouse.com Bethany House Publishers is a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan Printed in the United States of America All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Breslin, Kate. For such a time / Kate Breslin. pages cm. Summary: “A powerful retelling of the biblical story of Esther set during WWII: Blond and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin must save her people—even if she cannot save herself”— Provided by publisher. ISBN 978-0-7642-1160-7 (pbk.) 1. Jewish girls—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Jews—Fiction 3. World War, 19391945—Jewish resistance—Fiction. I. Title. PS3602.R4575F67 2014 813 .6—dc232013039563 Scripture quotation in chapter 5, Esther 2:11, is from the King James Version of the Bible. Scripture quotation in chapter 37, Hebrews 10:39, is from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com Scripture quotation at the close of the author’s acknowledgments is from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com This is a work of historical reconstruction; the appearances of certain historical figures are therefore inevitable. All other characters, however, are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Cover design by Kathleen Lynch/Black Kat Design Front cover photograph of woman © Daniel Murtagh / Millennium Images, UK Front cover photograph of European Jews © Getty Images Author is represented by Hartline Literary Agency 14 15 16 17 18 19 20   7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For John, my beloved

When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer . . . “ And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:12–14

 1 
Esther also was taken to the king’s palace. . . .
Esther 2:8

T

M O N DAY, F E B RUA RY 14, 1944 he stench was unmistakable. Seeping through the walls of the two-story chalet, turning pungent from the warmth of an oil furnace, the insidious odor drifted upstairs to where Stella lay asleep on a window seat. It filled her nostrils and roused her with a jerk; she struggled upright, shielding her eyes against the bright light penetrating the glass. Dawn. The burning had begun. Beyond the chilled pane lay the Ceaseless White. Stella gazed out at the endless mantle of snow punctuated by clusters of bare-limbed trees, a handful of farmhouses, and St. Jakob’s onion-shaped cupola in the distance. To the west, the nebulous sky grew dark as the stacks of Dachau’s Krematorium belched gritty smoke against a colorless sun, permeating the air with a sickening-sweet odor. She imagined the tiny charred flakes, soaring high, borne off to God Forsaken . . . Despair struck like an angry fist; she grabbed at the sill, f ­ eeling
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dizzy and out of breath as she pressed her bruised forehead against the cold glass. How was it that she still felt anything? The nausea soon passed, and she turned from the window— away from death—to stare at the austere whitewashed walls that hemmed her in. Not the train, not the Block at Dachau where she’d been held for months, but a room. Her makeshift prison for untold days. Why was she here . . . and why had she been singled out? The repetitive questions preyed on her anxiety as she began the day’s ritual of scouring her surroundings for clues. Uncle Morty once said that a person’s possessions spoke much about them. Stella believed their lack often revealed more. This room, for instance, like her dignity, was stripped bare except for a low-slung cot and a nightstand disguised as a battered fruit crate. Nothing else—least of all any frivolous female comforts that might capture her interest. No vanity with ruffled seat, no perfume bottles, lipstick cassettes, or cosmetics to clutter its top. Even the windowpane had felt brittle against her skin, bereft of any delicate lace curtains. With the war in full swing, no silk stockings hung idly over the back of a chair (had there been one) or tumbled from an open dresser drawer (had there been one). Not even a shard of mirrored glass hung on the stark walls. She’d simply been locked away upstairs in an empty room, the fabled Rapunzel in her tower. Except for the hair . . . Hardly a princess, Stella thought bitterly, smoothing blistered fingertips over the new growth at her scalp. She surveyed her spindly extremities—barely discernible arms and legs that protruded from the capped sleeves and knee-length hem of her blue cotton dress. She looked more like the room: an empty husk, lifeless, genderless. Temporary . . . The faint purr of a car’s engine drew her attention back to the window. A black Mercedes approached the chalet, cutting a path through the snow that concealed the road. The disjointed white cross of the Hakenkreuz emblazoned its door.
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Jew Killers. Stella froze as the Nazi staff car pulled up beside the house. Fragments of memory collided with her mounting apprehension. The gritty-faced Kapo—a Jew trusted by the Nazis to guard their Block of prisoners at Dachau—had stuffed her into the blue dress. The feel of warm wool against her skin as she was wrapped in a blanket and carried. The dark trunk of a car . . . The driver wore the black uniform of the Schutzstaffel and exited first before rushing around to open the passenger door. The man who emerged next stood tall and broad-shouldered in a heavy greatcoat. His presence evoked every aspect of authority. Dominance. Even the cane he gripped in his right hand failed to diminish his aura of power. He looked up at her window. Stella’s heart pounded. Did some intuitive force reveal to him her hiding place, or had he already known? She pulled back from the sill, then quickly changed her mind, meeting his stare. His face was a canvas of strength—rock-hard features fortified with asperity, amplified by the grim line at his mouth and the tautness of his squared jaw. Features much accustomed to pain. More in giving it than receiving it, she decided. Beneath his black officer’s cap with its skull-and-bones death’s-head insignia, eyes of an indiscernible color watched her a long moment. Without looking away, he raised his free hand and snapped his fingers, bringing his driver to heel like a trained beast. He passed his cane to the underling without comment and then strode to the front door. The bell sounded below, and every nerve in Stella’s body screamed. She heard the frantic voice of the housekeeper—her jailer—greet the Nazi. Pressing chapped palms against her thighs, she was vaguely aware of the dampness of sweat seeping through the thin cotton dress. Her pulse hammered in her throat as the first wooden step leading upstairs groaned beneath his weight. She’d heard
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 For Such a Time

about medical experiments performed on prisoners. Was he a doctor? Was that why she’d been brought here? A key turned in the lock. Stella’s body bucked in reaction, launching her to her feet. She became aware of a winded sound, a shallow, rapid rushing of air—and realized it was her own breath. “Gut, you’re awake.” The stout, ruddy-cheeked Hausfrau stood on the threshold. Not the Jew Killer. Stella’s knees nearly buckled. “You have an important visitor. Follow me downstairs.” Stella didn’t immediately grasp the command. Fear rooted her to a spot by the window, a sapling anchored to earth. She could only blink at the sour-faced woman standing at the door. “Are you deaf, Jude? I said come with me!” The sharp words freed Stella’s invisible fetters and she shuffled forward, swallowing the bubble of terror in her throat. In deference lay my survival, in deference lay my survival . . . “Your kind brings nothing but trouble,” the housekeeper hissed before turning to leave. Stella ground her teeth to keep silent. She wasn’t surprised at the woman’s hostility. Even the word Jew had become dangerous to utter. Deadly. Following the Hausfrau downstairs, Stella felt panic escalate with each step. She fought it the only way she knew how: by lulling herself into a languid state that had so often shielded her sanity. She became oblivious to the gold-gilt lithographs framed along the stairwell and the moan of warped wood beneath her bare feet. Dust particles swirling in a shaft of winter sunlight from an upstairs window went unnoticed. When pain from a protruding nail on the step finally jarred her benumbed state, Stella blinked and stared down at the blood oozing from her torn flesh. Her chest tightened with flashes of memory. Bloody hands . . . gunshot . . .
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“Move!” Like an ill-wakened sleeper, she raised her head to glare at the housekeeper. What was the point in deference? She was already dead inside. Did it matter what they did with her body? Fear and disgust flashed across the other woman’s face before she hastily resumed her descent. Stella followed, determined to buoy her defiance with each step— Until she came face-to-face with him. Terror sank its claws in deep. As the housekeeper fled to the safety of the kitchen, Stella clung to her last shred of newfound courage and focused on the man before her. He swiftly removed his hat, the brim pitching flecks of snow against her cheek. From the window above, she’d imagined him much older. Stella was surprised to see that, up close, he was nearer in age to her own twenty-three years. His thick russet hair, shot through with gold, lay close-cropped against his head, while eyes—a vibrant shade of green—studied her with open curiosity. “Good morning, Fräulein.” Startled by his deep voice, Stella teetered backward on the step. He caught her bony wrist to steady her. When she tried to wrench free, the gloved fingers held firm. His dark brows rose in challenge. “I trust you’re feeling better?” The ice from his brim numbed her cheek. Stella fought for calm as she glanced from his arrogant face to the imposing grip on her wrist. She could smell him—new leather and pine, the dampness of snow. “I can assure you that you’re quite safe here.” Safe? Her free hand fisted at her side. How often had that word been used, that promise given and broken at Dachau? The snowflakes melted against her skin. Stella raised her fist to wipe at the wetness; his hand was faster, and she flinched at the contact of soft leather against her cheek. Would he beat her now for being weak, mistaking the water for tears? Or maybe criticize her first?
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But the Jew Killer did nothing, said nothing. Even his touch felt surprisingly gentle. She watched his gaze drop to the hand still in his grasp. In that he took care as well, as one by one he uncurled her clenched fingers. Turning her hand over, he assessed the bruises on her knuckles and joints. Stella’s fear battled against his oddly comforting touch. The heat she could feel through his leather glove made him seem almost . . . human. The raw fury in his eyes shattered the illusion. “You have my word,” he said mildly. “While you are here, no one can harm you.” Clicking his heels together, he offered a curt nod. “Allow me to introduce myself. Colonel Aric von Schmidt, SS Kommandant to the transit camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.” When she made no response, he added, “Lucky for you, on my way to Munich I stopped at Dachau to see my cousin Frau Gertz. I also chose to visit the camp while I was here and oversee the first transfer of laborers into my command.” An effort to smile died on his lips. “You see, I’m relatively new to my post, so I can hardly afford mistakes. Nor am I a man who tolerates them. When my sergeant informed me that one body from the train’s manifest was unaccounted for, I decided to track it down myself. Care to guess who it was?” Stella shook her head, too afraid to speak. “No? Well, here you are—proof of my good deed. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t put you on that train, it was due to an inconsistency on your papers. They state you are Aryan, Fräulein Muller. So you will explain to me now why they have been stamped jude.” Stella lowered her head to hide her resentment. The false identification papers Uncle Morty had purchased for her in secret from Berlin had done nothing to save her. She’d spent the past several months living in quarters unfit for livestock. She’d worked outside in the cold, wearing thin rags and wooden clogs several sizes too big. Not even stockings to protect her feet
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from chafing or frostbite. And hunger—the Nazis had tried to starve them all. “Answer me!” he snapped at her, all pretense at politeness gone. Stella’s head shot up as she choked on her fear. “Gestapo . . . at the checkpoint . . .” “Gestapo did this? Why?” His eyes narrowed on her. Stella’s panic exploded. “He wanted to . . . tried to . . . I wouldn’t let him . . .” She struggled against his grasp. “Please . . . not my fault . . . !” “Enough!” His grip was like iron. “I told you that you are safe here. Why do you think I brought you to my cousin’s house?” Stella quit her struggle. The fact that he’d gone to such lengths to save her came on the heels of realizing he wasn’t a doctor. Instead of feeling relief, a cold shiver crept up her spine. What did he want? She tried to recall further details from that night, but could remember nothing prior to her awakening days before on the cot upstairs. It seemed her life had changed in the span of an instant, and this man, this Jew Killer, took credit for the act. Yet Stella had no recollection of him. Nor did she feel gratitude. “I don’t understand. Why did you bring me here?” High on the foyer wall, a Black Forest clock ticked the seconds. Stella held her breath, every nerve attuned to the man’s response. This time his smile reached its destination. Dazzling white, its unexpected warmth surprised and unsettled her. Only his somber green eyes dampened the effect. “Do I need a reason, Fräulein?” A pause. “Very well, I wanted an explanation and you’ve given it—more or less. I know the Gestapo’s breed of men, so I can fill in the blanks.” He eyed her a long moment. “Trust me when I tell you that you are not the first to fall victim to their pranks.” Stella’s throat tightened with anger. Her experience at the hands of the Gestapo had hardly been a mere joke. She swallowed her ire and said, “And now . . . what will you do with me, Herr Kommandant?”
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“Fatten you up like a Christmas Gänsebraten, for a start.” He glanced at her spare limbs. “Soon you’ll return to the pretty dove I imagine you once were.” Stella looked away. Was he toying with her? Morty once told her that her beauty would save her—a “changeling,” he’d called his young niece, Stella’s blond hair and blue eyes a rarity among their people. Her uncle had been wrong. Beauty was dangerous, a liability for someone desperate to remain obscure in a crowd, inconspicuous to the eyes of soldiers. She turned to him, this time her bitterness unchecked. “Christmas goose or fatted calf, both meet the same end, do they not, Herr Kommandant?” The muscle at his jaw clenched. Too late, Stella realized her foolish outburst. Horrified and amazed at her own audacity, she braced against the expected Consequence. Surely he would beat her, or worse— “Frau Gertz!” The force of his bellow nearly knocked Stella back. He continued to hold her in his grip until his cousin appeared cautiously from the kitchen. “Get her a coat. We’re leaving.” Frau Gertz bobbed her head like some peasant to a feudal lord before she rushed toward the closet. Stella could only watch, frozen in place. The colonel promised she would be safe . . . here. And now they were leaving. The Hausfrau returned with a coat disguised as a frayed white shawl. “Have you any shoes, Fräulein?” He sounded impatient. Stella gaped at her bloodied feet, her mind seized by more forgotten memories. Someone at Dachau had taken her shoes, her clothes . . . She knelt naked in the snow, her soul seared with humiliation, her body numbed by cold. Faces streaked with dirt and
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pity surrounded her as though she were some freak in a carnival. Soon guards dragged her away. Her flesh burned with pain, then fear. Fear for the little hands shoving a bundle in her direction. A blouse . . . little hands in danger . . . crying hands . . . struggle with the guards . . . the crack of a rifle . . . Images ripped through Stella like shards of glass. She hunched forward, dizzy with pain, her eyes shut against the brutal past. “I will not ask you again!” The colonel’s frighteningly cold voice sounded a thousand kilometers away. She clawed her way up through the terrifying haze and struggled to recall his question. Shoes . . . “Gone,” Stella managed to say before her knees buckled. She collapsed toward the floor just as he caught her and hauled her against him. She made a puny attempt to push away, but his strength clearly outmatched hers. Exhausted, she slumped against him, only vaguely aware of the shawl being placed across her shoulders. She cried out in protest as he lifted her into his arms. That seemed to fuel his anger. “You fed her while I was away, didn’t you?” “Oh, she ate.” Frau Gertz’s blunt fingers bunched in the folds of her white apron. “She ate food enough for three people! Then she threw it up on my floor. Now she refuses anything but broth.” The Hausfrau shot an accusing look at Stella, as if demanding corroboration. Stella’s face heated. She’d been so hungry. Afterward, she’d sworn that no one, especially this nasty woman, would ever again witness her humiliation. So far, the broth seemed safe enough. “What about clothing, cousin?” The colonel’s tone held an edge. “I had assumed that for the week I left her in your care, my money would more than compensate you for your trouble.” “But you said to use discretion,” the Hausfrau whined. “How could I go to town and buy new clothes without the tradesmen asking questions? She is so much smaller than me—” “I’m done with excuses! Now give her your coat, and shoes for her feet. Schnell!”
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 For Such a Time

His bark sent her running back to the closet. She returned with a voluminous black wool coat and a pair of dirty pink house slippers. “My other shoes are still at the cobbler’s. . . .” Her voice trailed off. The colonel was staring at the boots on her feet. The Hausfrau looked alarmed. Stella felt a spurt of vindication. “Please, cousin.” Before she could utter another plea, he swore and snatched up the clothing. He wheeled around and departed with Stella, leaving a startled Frau Gertz in his wake. Outside, his driver held the car door open. Once the colonel deposited Stella against the seat, he offered her the coat and slippers. She took them before scooting to the far end of the car. His hulk-like frame followed her inside. The engine of the Mercedes roared to life while heat blasted from vents in the car’s dashboard. Stella bit back a blissful sigh as she hugged the borrowed coat to her chest. Casting a surreptitious glance at the colonel, she found herself caught in his steady, impenetrable gaze. A brief moment passed before the line at his mouth thinned and his features hardened, as though he’d reached some distasteful conclusion. Alarms began going off in Stella’s head as he reached a gloved hand deep inside his coat . . . A gun! He was going to shoot her! She grabbed the door’s handle and pulled. Locked! A scream lodged in her throat as she shut her eyes, pressing her body hard into the leather seat— “Put this on.” Her eyes flew open. She swallowed her cry when she saw he held not a pistol but a woman’s red hairpiece. He offered it to her. “As you’ve discovered, papers mean little at this stage of the war. We don’t want you looking too conspicuous.” With unsteady hands, she fitted the wig so that the strands fell about her shoulders. “You’ll get across the Czech border safely enough,” he said when she finished. “But the color doesn’t suit you, Fräulein.”
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Ignoring the petty insult, Stella turned toward the window and struggled to regain her composure. Outside, emerald fir and barren poplars rushed past the car as it sped along the winding ribbon of road into Germany’s lower wine country. The war hadn’t yet touched this pristine countryside; instead of burned-out buildings and cratered fields, she saw only arbors, barren of fruit, cast against a backdrop of snowy white. In summer their latticed bowers would again be laden with plump grapes, peacefully unaware of the suffering only a few kilometers away. Freiheit. Freedom. Stella gazed out at the forested hills and felt a stab of yearning like physical pain. She embraced it, ridding herself of fear as fury from the past several months replaced it. Fury at the old God for abandoning her. Fury at this new one, the uniformed monster beside her who now controlled her life. Silence stretched with the miles, and though she burned with questions, Stella was grateful for the respite. She had no use for small talk with this Nazi, and having to answer more of his questions could only become a dangerous undertaking. At Regensburg, a town near the western bank of the Danube River, the colonel ordered a halt at a local Gasthaus. He dispatched his driver, Sergeant Grossman, to go inside and procure three lunches. He then turned his attention to her. “Your papers state you are from Innsbruck. I too am Austrian, from the little town of Thaur, not far from there.” His penetrating eyes looked at odds with his smile. “I once knew a man by the name of Muller: Tag Muller. He and his family lived in the town of Innsbruck, where I ventured often as a boy. Are you any relation? I’m sure I would not have forgotten you.” Stella shook her head, glancing at the bruised hands in her lap. Mentally she cursed her false papers. In all of Europe to conjure a birthplace, Morty happened to choose this man’s backyard and the name of a family friend! “Well?”
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She moistened her dry lips. “Muller is a common name.” “True. Is your family still there?” Again she shook her head, refusing to look at him. Stella desperately hoped he would mistake her silence for grief and stop asking questions. Her ploy failed. “Speak!” He grabbed her chin and turned her face until their eyes locked. “I trust, since you have the ability to make rash remarks, that you can also make intelligent conversation.” Trembling beneath his touch, Stella did not look away. “My parents died when I was five.” That much was true, anyway. “I had no other family, so I was taken in and raised by their closest friends.” A spurt of defiance made her add, “They were Jews.” Expecting a violent reaction, Stella was surprised when his grip on her eased. In fact, he looked only mildly curious. “Your papers also state you have performed clerical work. Did you attend school at Innsbruck?” “Yes.” It was another lie, though Stella had received instruction, but not in any school—not past the age of thirteen when Nuremberg law forbade Jews to receive an education. Instead, Mrs. Bernstein, a retired schoolteacher living upstairs from their old apartment in Mannheim, had tutored her in the basics of bookkeeping and clerical skills. “How well can you type?” Stella straightened in her seat. Did he have need of her abilities? “Very well, Herr Kommandant,” she said. “I also know shorthand and general accounting.” She tried to repress her optimism, painfully aware of the Nazis’ verbal traps. He seemed genuinely pleased. “I’d hoped as much, Stella.” The sound of her name on his lips disturbed her, as though linking them together in some intimate way. Stella wanted nothing personal between them. She’d much rather hate him. Sergeant Grossman returned with their packages of food. As he began passing them through the open car window, Stella noticed his left wrist bore no hand; the steel hook in its place
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both frightened and moved her as she watched him struggle with his burden. The colonel offered her a boxed lunch. Stella vehemently shook her head. “You will eat,” he growled. “Not only did your bones cut into me while I carried you, but you weigh less than a pair of my boots. And if you starve yourself, well . . .” He shot her a calculated look. “We won’t be able to plan out your future, will we?” An artful strategist. She took the box, hating that he’d correctly guessed that her curiosity at his statement would outweigh any risk of nausea. She concentrated on taking small bites of the cheese sandwich and apple slices packed inside while her attention strayed back toward the miles they had crossed. “Relax.” The colonel read her thoughts. “Dachau is only a speck in the distance.” She paused with a dried apple slice halfway to her lips. What of those who still suffered? There was no hope for them. Unlike her, they wouldn’t be rescued. But was she safe? Stella stared at the man beside her, this Jew Killer who had taken possession of her. With or without false papers, her life might only stretch as far as the next hour. What did he really want with her? Why had he taken her from Dachau? Would he ever let her go free? Her throat ached at the unbearable uncertainty. Lord, please let me know my fate. Silence. Had she expected otherwise? “What is my future, Herr Kommandant?” she managed to whisper. “That depends on you, Fräulein.” His smile was enigmatic. “Can you act as well as you type?”

19

 2 
Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so.
Esther 2:10

H

alt!” The Mercedes rolled to a stop in front of a manned gate at the border blockade into Czechoslovakia. A soldier in the brown uniform of the Sturmabteilung marched to their car. Stella cast a nervous glance at the colonel. “Stop looking guilty,” he whispered, but his smile held a perceptible tightness. Stella’s anxiety intensified. Her safety depended on the colonel. He was the enemy, true, but whatever his motives, he’d so far shown her considerable concern. The border guard standing outside her car window was a different matter. If their ruse failed, not even the colonel could save her. The Brownshirts would shoot her dead. The soldier pinned her with a glare as he barked an order at Sergeant Grossman to produce their identification papers. Stella’s nostrils flared with the sharp tang of fear. She began fidgeting with the red strands of her hair until the colonel caught
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her hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. Whether a silent reprimand or a token of encouragement, the small gesture helped her regain a measure of control. “Herr Colonel!” The car door on Stella’s side flew open. “Where are the woman’s papers?” The Brownshirt waved their documents in his hand. “The Fräulein needs no papers. She’s with me.” The young guard’s face reddened. “But this is highly irregular, Herr Colonel. She must have papers!” “I’m running late, Corporal.” Now the colonel sounded bored. “Do you purposely delay my urgent business for der Führer?” “Nein, of course not.” The Brownshirt glanced behind the car. Relief swept across his features. “Please, you will wait here a moment, Herr Colonel.” Sergeant Grossman stared into the rearview mirror. “Gestapo.” Stella followed the colonel’s backward glance to a black unmarked car pulling up directly behind them. The colonel muttered an expletive, then said, “That’s all I need—those sniffing dogs.” He gripped Stella’s shoulder. “It was necessary to bend a few rules in order to get you out of Dachau. No matter what happens, say nothing to them. Verstehen?” Hair prickled at her nape. She nodded, ignoring the pain as his fingers dug into her skin. A fleshy-faced, stocky man in black leather appeared at the open door. Stella had the fleeting thought that this Gestapo pig actually looked like one. His snout nose was wedged between a pair of rounded spectacles, while his eyes shone like black, wet beads behind the frames. They scrutinized the colonel and then stared at her. “Get out of the car, Fräulein.” Pig-nose uttered the toneless command from lips too red and thick to be considered masculine. Stella couldn’t rouse herself. She froze, unable to look away.
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His beady eyes narrowed while his nostrils shot twin streams of billowing steam into the cold afternoon. He unholstered his pistol, drew back the slide, and took aim. “Get out, now.” Instinct pushed Stella back against the solid wall of the colonel. She turned to him, knowing her bloodless face conveyed panic. The muscle at his jaw compressed with fury as he gave her a flicker of a nod. Pig-nose stepped back while Stella clambered out of the car. Air froze in her lungs as icy slush pooled inside the slippers; she felt her joints ache all the way up to her teeth. Drawing in several shallow breaths, Stella raised her gaze to him. Pig-nose stared at her ridiculously shod feet. “Give me your papers, Fräulein.” Two uniformed men approached to stand on either side of him. Pig-nose glared at her. Stella struggled against gravity, tilting her chin to meet his scowl. Cold moisture trickled down her back as the silence ticked off in seconds, palpable sounds like the pulse pounding in her ears. She didn’t hear the car door open. Nor was she more than vaguely aware when the colonel moved to stand beside her. “Here’s what you’re looking for, Captain.” He thrust her identification papers into the outstretched palm. Pig-nose scanned the documents. “These have been marked jude, Herr Colonel.” His gloved hand whipped out and tore away the red wig. Cold pierced Stella’s exposed scalp, stinging her ears. “So, it seems, has she.” The murky eyes behind the glasses barely registered surprise. “Take off the coat.” With jerking motions, Stella removed the warm garment. Pig-nose then grabbed her left wrist, exposing the numbered tattoo near her elbow. “She has all the attributes.” He cast another mocking smile at her dirty, water-soaked slippers before he crumpled her papers and tossed them to the
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ground. Stella watched the remnants of her life grow damp and soiled in the dirty snow like so much refuse. He signaled the guard on his right toward the colonel’s car. “We will need more details on this matter, Herr Colonel. You and your party will accompany us back to the Gestapo office in Regensburg. My man will escort you.” More courteous words; their ominous weight buried Stella like an avalanche. She struggled to breathe, tasting the danger in them, the promise of death. “That won’t be necessary, Captain.” The colonel’s congenial tone was welcome relief. Stella’s exhausted limbs, numbed with cold, wavered beneath her. “I requested Fräulein Muller months ago from Austria,” the colonel continued smoothly. She glanced at him as he gave her arm a warning squeeze. “She was my brother’s secretary in Linz—he generously allowed me the use of her services at Theresienstadt, where I’ve been assigned as Kommandant by the Reichsführer. Unfortunately she was arrested on her way to Munich, where we were to meet. If you’ll check her papers closely, you’ll see the mistake.” He smiled a cold smile. “Himmler himself admitted it was great luck that I happened to find her at Dachau, though he was perturbed that the Gestapo’s error delayed me in reaching my new post.” The colonel was a better liar than she was! Stella watched as his implied intimacy with the same powerful man who also controlled the Gestapo had its desired effect. Pig-nose’s red smirk faded. He straightened and holstered his pistol. His speculative expression darted between Stella and the colonel. Then he snapped his fingers at the man beside him and pointed to the crumpled, water-stained wad on the ground. The orderly retrieved Stella’s papers, and Pig-nose made a great show of rereading them before he thrust them back at the colonel, along with Stella’s red wig.
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“I trust you will inform Herr Reichsführer that Captain Otto Meinz, of Gestapo Regensburg, gave you no cause for further delay, Herr Colonel?” “I will, of course, report your expediency in the matter, Captain.” Pig-nose thrust out his arm. “Heil Hitler!” The colonel returned the salute as he lifted Stella by the waist and stuffed her back inside the car. Tossing the wig in after her, he slammed the door and got in on the other side. Pig-nose signaled the guard to open the gate. Glancing back in at Stella, he offered her a curt nod. She could hear his bootheels snap together. “My apologies, Fräulein.” Inclining her head slightly, she shrugged back into the coat and stifled her giddy relief as the Mercedes rolled forward. Plowing eastward, they gradually ascended along the base of the Sumava Mountains into the Bohemian Forest. Steel sky vanished, replaced by a thick canopy of pine and fir merging along either side of the road. Shadows inside the car danced with occasional breaks in the trees as the Mercedes sped along a road largely cleared of snow. No doubt German Panzers and the tank troops had been through recently. “Give me your feet.” Stella shot him a startled look. “Now, before they become completely useless.” The colonel reached for her legs, swiveling her around in the seat to settle them against his lap. Tearing away the water-soaked slippers, he removed the muffler from around his neck and wrapped her bare feet, briskly massaging her heels, soles, and toes. Stella winced at the pain of blood flowing back into the nerves. “You did well back there.” His grim expression belied the compliment. “I trust I’ve now sufficiently answered your question?” Rattled by her confrontation with the Gestapo and distracted by the needles pricking her sore feet, Stella nodded in reflexive obedience. “What question, Herr Kommandant?” she asked.
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 K a t e B r e s l i n

Heat bullied its way up her cheeks at his amusement. Disgusted at her own bottomless well of humiliation, she added the obvious. “I’m to be your secretary then.” The car’s shadows disappeared along with the deepest part of the forest. Stella caught the colonel’s silent assent and relief flowed like honey through her limbs. It seemed she would live . . . at least for a time. “Actually, one of my reasons for traveling to Munich was to obtain an assistant. But then I found you at the camp and saw that your papers listed clerical skills.” In the dimness she glimpsed the slight shrug of his broad shoulders. “I am taking a chance on you, Fräulein Muller.” His brusqueness stifled her newfound assurance. “That does not mean I tolerate marginal work. I’m a demanding employer, so your best had better be good enough. “Nor will I permit deceit. There’s enough political intrigue stalking my back within the Reich without adding your name to the list. Your loyalty belongs to me”—he leaned close so that his warm breath grazed her cheek—“and no one else.” His nearness, as well as her vulnerable position, with her legs pinioned across his lap, amplified the tremor along Stella’s spine. She’d already lied to him; her whole life had become one big falsehood. “I won’t deceive you,” she said, unable to look him in the eye. “Excellent. Because as easily as I netted you from that cesspool Dachau, I can toss you back.” “I understand perfectly, Herr Kommandant.” “I believe you do.” He rested back against the seat and continued massaging her feet. Humor touched his voice. “I suspect your intelligence is only matched by your beauty.” Stella set her chin as she glanced at her battered hands and bony wrists. She turned to stare out the back window, refusing to let him see how his insults affected her. He paused in his ministrations. “You doubt my sincerity?”
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 For Such a Time

She pretended not to hear him, but the pressure of his hand on her cheek brought her around to face him. “Beneath hollowed cheeks and bruises, beauty sleeps.” He spoke aloud as though to himself; his somber green eyes darkened to the depths of the forest they had just passed. Stella refused to fathom the reason it disturbed her. “Wounds to the flesh eventually heal, Fräulein,” he said, releasing her. “Your beauty will return soon enough.” “What about wounds to the soul, Herr Kommandant?” She instantly regretted the question. Yet he didn’t seem angry; his features registered only mild surprise, then resettled into their matrix of hard angles and planes. “A much more complex injury,” he said. “One for which I have yet to find a cure.” His dispirited tone made her wonder at its cause. From the moment she’d first spied him through the window of the chalet, he’d worn a furrowed brow and a hard line at his mouth, as though another, more intimate battle raged. Stella shunned any further consideration. He wasn’t worth it—he’d already made it clear he would send her back to Dachau without a second thought. She’d learned enough of the SS ways to know he meant every word. This reprieve she’d been granted could all change in an instant. Disquieted, she removed her legs from his lap. “Thank you, Herr Kommandant. I’m much better now.” She unwrapped her feet and offered the scarf back to him. “Keep it.” Of course he wouldn’t want it back—it was stained with her blood, her filth. Stella blushed as she wadded the cloth into her lap. She darted another glance at him. The colonel’s sizable frame took up most of the seat. His head rested back against the leather, a briefcase near his feet. The same brass-topped cane she’d noticed earlier lay propped against the door. She wondered at the nature of his injury. He had managed to carry her with such ease.
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 K a t e B r e s l i n

He seemed preoccupied staring out the window. His head bobbed slightly with the car’s motion. Perhaps he planned the first execution of Jews at his new concentration camp. Or decided on Consequences with which to abuse her people first, like the SS guards at Dachau. Her tormentors had invented many such Consequences. One particularly sadistic sport, which Stella had likened to a game of Katz und Maus, involved the guards acting like sly felines as they waited for a prisoner to cross the assembly grounds. After sufficiently torturing their “Maus,” what remained was carted off to the Krematorium—sometimes dead, sometimes not. Stella knotted the scarf in her hands. What would her Consequence be if she didn’t type fast enough or she misconstrued one of the colonel’s dictated letters? Mrs. Bernstein had reprimanded her often enough about her shorthand— “The worst is over, Fräulein. Relax.” The colonel studied her as he nudged her back against the seat. “Are you warm enough?” Stella nodded. Another lie, but he would hardly care that her months of shoveling snow trenches at Dachau had left a chill that refused to go away. “Get some rest. We’ll be home in a few hours.” Home . . . Leaving behind the lofty slopes to descend the mountains into Czechoslovakia, Stella looked out at the patchwork swells of white amidst evergreens that swept past the car. She was reminded of the quilt she’d made, a surprise birthday gift for her uncle. That was before the Nazis destroyed it along with the rest of their possessions—before they took Morty away. Lord, why don’t you hear me? Why have you taken away my joy? Anger battled her exhaustion with the drowsing lull of the car’s motion. Home was a place that, even if she lived, would never be the same.

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 For Such a Time

“Wake up, Meine Süsse.” A deep voice beckoned her toward consciousness. My sweet . . . Stella’s lashes fluttered open. Moonlight flooded the back seat of the car. She blinked and turned her head to stare out the window. Nightfall replaced the day’s dingy sun; the sky now seemed as dark and unfathomable as her future. Only the moon animated the Ceaseless White, bringing into sharp focus the barbed wire and searchlights of Dachau. . . . “Nein!” she screamed and launched forward in the seat. Blood pounded in her ears as dark spots crowded her vision. It had all been a cruel trick— “Breathe!” Rough hands forced her head down between her knees. Voices buzzed against the roaring pulse in her brain. “. . . do you understand? You’re safe!” The colonel’s words finally penetrated her fear. “We’ve arrived at Theresienstadt.” Not Dachau. Stella’s breathing slowed. The pain in her chest eased. She tried to raise her head, but he held her still. “Did you hear me? You will not be afraid. This is your new home.” She moved her neck in an effort to nod. “Ja,” she gasped. He released her. She eased back against the seat, feeling lightheaded and vulnerable. She instinctively drew away from him. “You act as if I would bite.” His voice held a trace of mockery. “Anyway, I prefer a meatier dish. Perhaps once you’ve been properly fed?” Stella hugged herself while his tasteless attempt at humor hung in the air. Sergeant Grossman opened their door. “Enough. Come.” The colonel got out first, then gestured to her. Before she could reach for the soggy slippers, he pulled her from the car into his arms. She stared back toward the barbed wire and glaring searchlights that had frightened her. Beyond the cordoned-off section
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 K a t e B r e s l i n

rose a fortress, high and formidable. Were the prisoners inside? The stronghold didn’t look like a concentration camp; no sentries marching, no barking dogs. The place seemed deserted. “Well, Fräulein, will it suit you?” Stella tensed before she realized the colonel wasn’t looking at the fortress but at a lovely two-story brick house directly ahead. Pointed tips like sharp teeth rose from the picket fence surrounding the yard. “I’m to live . . . here?” “Would you rather live over there?” He angled his chin toward the fortress. “Nein!” She had an inkling of what lay beyond those walls: deprivation and incarceration, two conditions she’d gladly forgo to live in this charming house. “Then I trust you’ll behave yourself.” But his tone held no threat as he carried her toward the house. They had reached the latticed gate to the yard when a man’s crisp voice sounded behind them, “Heil Hitler, Herr Kommandant.” The colonel swung around to confront two soldiers garbed in the black uniform of the SS. Like a pair of stout oaks laid bare to the cold, they stood dark and rigid before their commandant. “Ah, Captain Hermann. I trust my camp is still in one piece?” “Jawohl, Herr Kommandant,” said the officer who had spoken. “Only a few troublemakers.” The captain’s expression remained cold, impassive. “Sergeant Koch and I handled the situation.” Beside him, the sergeant grinned, his gold-capped front tooth gleaming in the moonlight. Hermann turned his icy stare on Stella. A chill grazed her nape as she realized she’d left the red wig in the car. “You’ve captured a runaway Jew, Herr Kommandant?” he asked with a smirk. “Nein, Captain.” The strong arms that held her tensed. “A secretary.” “With all due respect, she looks like a J—”
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 For Such a Time

“She’s not, Captain.” The colonel’s tone held an edge. “Merely a victim of circumstance. You must trust me on this . . . or do you doubt my loyalty to the Reich?” “Of course not, Herr Kommandant!” “Gut.” He kicked open the latticed gate with a polished boot. “If there’s nothing else . . . ?” “Nein, Herr Kommandant,” the captain said, and he and the sergeant saluted. The colonel turned and continued with Stella along the shoveled walk toward the front door. She glanced over his shoulder at the pair still at the gate. Even in the moonlight she could see their contempt. Every female instinct in her recoiled as she watched Hermann’s harsh expression turn deliberate, covetous— “Are you afraid I’ll drop you, or do you try to strangle me?” Her gaze turned back to collide with the colonel’s amused look, and she realized her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck. Blushing, she loosened her grip. “Herr Kommandant, I . . .” The front door burst open, spilling golden light onto the porch. A scrawny boy stood at the threshold, a yellow Mogen Dovid star sewn to his blue jacket. He couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old. Anna’s age. Stella sucked in a breath and shoved away the memory. The boy eyed her curiously as he doffed his overlarge brown tweed cap and stepped back to let them enter. “Guten Abend, Herr Kommandant.” “Good evening, Joseph.” The colonel’s tone held genuine warmth, which surprised Stella. He crossed the threshold into the foyer before releasing her to stand beside him. Her toes sank into a thick Aubusson carpet, the luxuriant fibers soothing her raw feet. “Come, stand by the fire.” Loath to move from the spot, Stella nonetheless followed him into the main living room. A blaze crackled in the hearth, and
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its welcome heat raised gooseflesh along her skin. The smell of fresh-baked bread wafted into the room, and she felt a sudden, ravenous hunger. Cramps seized her belly all the way to her throat, saliva flooding her mouth with such force she had to swallow. She took a deep breath to stifle her anxiety. Would she disgrace herself at his table? “Joseph, ask Helen to prepare an extra plate for supper.” The boy, having taken the colonel’s cane and briefcase from Sergeant Grossman at the door, set them near the hearth and disappeared into the kitchen. “I’ll get you a chair.” With only a few long strides, the colonel crossed the living room to pluck a heavy leather armchair from the foyer and carry it back to the hearth. “Sit.” She complied and again wondered at his need for the cane. He seemed fit enough. The colonel shed his greatcoat, then assumed an imposing stance beside her. He stared into the fire, their communal silence broken only by the pop and crackle of orange flames licking over fresh logs. Stella turned to look up at him openly. Without the heavy coat he was still a broad-shouldered man. Decorations littered his tailored black uniform; among the rows of medals and ribbons covering the area over his heart, he also wore the highly distinguished Knight’s Cross. She quickly shifted her focus back to the fireplace. The rare commendation was given only to officers with exceptional valor in battle. Morty too had received a Knight’s Cross—the most coveted of all, the Grand Cross. He’d earned the prestigious medal during the first Great War when he’d fought for Germany. The same country that now turned its back on him because of his Jewish blood. Fear and resentment flooded her. Had the colonel received his commendations for true valor . . . or for killing Jews? A man of his size and strength could easily kill someone like her.
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 For Such a Time

“There is a study that adjoins the library, which serves as my workplace.” Stella schooled her thoughts as he pointed to a set of double doors off the living room. “You should find everything you need at the desk I’ve installed there. If you require anything else, let me know. Breakfast is at seven each morning. Work will commence at eight.” He gave her a sharp look. “Miss either one and you’ll discover the limits of my good nature. “Weekends are your free days. You will of course be restricted to the immediate house. With an armed escort you may visit the woods at the back of the property.” He reached to trail a finger across the blond stubble at her scalp. “Only until you put on weight and your hair grows out a bit more. It’s for your protection. We can’t risk a mistake.” No hint of cruelty colored his voice, which made the danger he spoke of even more real. She hugged her waist and nodded. “Joseph will show you to your room upstairs.” He signaled the boy returning from the kitchen. “I’m sure you’d like to . . . freshen up before supper.” Stella glanced around at the colonel’s beautiful home before staring down at her bloodied feet. She’d soiled his expensive carpet. “Of course, Herr Kommandant,” she whispered. “Schnell, Fräulein. Supper is ready and I am starved.” She refused to look at him as she struggled out of the comfortable chair and walked to where Joseph waited by the stairs. “Fifteen minutes, Fräulein Muller. Any longer and I’ll come after you myself, because you will eat. I need an important letter sent to Berlin in the morning and I won’t have you fainting from hunger in the middle of my dictation.” Stella turned at the colonel’s good-natured threat. His humor and consideration threw her off-balance. It also bothered her that when his features relaxed, he was a handsome man. She preferred to maintain her view of him as the grim-faced killer whose presence alone sent armies running in the opposite direction.
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She finally followed the boy up the carpeted steps, assailed by new emotions she wasn’t prepared to deal with. Except guilt— that heavy weight threatened to smother her. A warm house, delicious-smelling food, and a place to sleep while others died in the cold. The colonel had told her his reason for rescuing her—that he needed a secretary. But once she no longer resembled a prisoner, would he allow her to leave? And in the meantime, could she forget who he was? What his kind had done to her? Never.

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 3 
He assigned to her . . . the best place in the harem.
Esther 2:9

I

t was the loveliest room she’d ever seen. Stella leaned against the doorjamb and marveled at the profusion of ivory lace curtains draped across an elongated window above the single bed. Matching ivory pillows sprawled against a blue chenille coverlet, while beside the bed sat a mahogany nightstand; a lavish Girandole crystal lamp rested against its polished surface, along with a small book and an exquisite clock of inlaid pearl. An armoire in the same honey-toned wood stood along the opposite wall. Crossing the threshold, she tossed her borrowed coat onto the bed. A framed watercolor beside the armoire caught her attention: A young girl in a red, beribboned straw hat lay in the tall grass of a sunny meadow. Yellow pansies, vibrant against a blue stream, surrounded her. The picture seemed quiet and peaceful, blissfully silent. Unlike the noisy, crowded Block at Dachau where Stella and other female prisoners had been crammed together like a tin of sardines. She breathed a wistful sigh. Solitude was a luxury she’d once taken for granted.
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Moving deeper into the room, Stella spied a narrow door off the bedroom—her own personal bath! She rushed inside and stood in the middle of the small, tiled room. How long had it been since she’d bathed in a real tub? Or slept in a feathery bed? Was it a trick? Why would God now tempt her with hope . . . after all she’d been through? Yet she couldn’t deny the feeling, as alien and vague as her freedom. Stella returned to the bedroom. The boy still hovered at the door. “You’re Joseph?” He stared at her, then dropped his gaze and nodded. “How old are you?” His face shot up. Long brown lashes lowered slightly. “Ten.” Older than Anna. Stella blocked the memory as swiftly as it came. The boy’s clothes were clean but worn and hung loosely on his small frame. He seemed so fragile; no wonder she’d thought him younger at first. She’d also failed to note his missing right ear. “How old are you, Fräulein?” Stella found a smile, despite her cracked lips. “You should never ask a lady that question.” His olive cheeks bloomed with color. “Twenty-three,” she relented. “How long have you lived here, Joseph?” “A year—in the ghetto, anyway. I only been with Herr Kommandant about a month.” “Does he treat you well?” Stella tried not to stare at the bloody scab where his ear had been. If the colonel did this to him, then her own fate would surely be worse. “I like it here. The work’s easy and I get to eat all the Käsespätzle I want. I even got my own bed.” Maybe the colonel hadn’t hurt the child. Stella thought of the two soldiers she’d just seen outside. Her heart raced as she struggled to recall their names . . . a captain . . . Hermann?
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 For Such a Time

Yes—and Sergeant Koch. Easing out a breath, she asked the boy, “What about the other Nazis?” His features tensed, and she closed the distance between them. “Listen to me, Joseph,” she said as she crouched to his level. “I know the cruelty they can inflict. I give you my word I won’t repeat what you tell me. But I must know . . . what to expect here.” His intelligent brown eyes studied her with an intensity beyond his tender years. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you, Fräulein?” “Nein!” She reared back, her reaction automatic, borne of fear, rehearsed a thousand times as Morty had taught her. And they hadn’t even asked . . . She stood with others at the Mannheim checkpoint, regretting her decision to leave the safety of Marta’s Heidelberg apartment and return to search for her uncle. The place was crawling with Nazis. A fat Gestapo man moved up close behind her in line, his comrades shouting encouragement. Stella gasped when his filthy wet mouth grazed her neck, the rankness of stale beer and tobacco on his breath. When he began to touch her, she lost control. Like a feral cat unleashed, she turned and attacked him before several pairs of hands dragged her away. Her satisfaction at the bloody welts she’d raked along his face exploded into pain with the first blow; the second knocked her flat against the ground. Afterward he’d grabbed up her scattered papers and marched with them to the checkpoint table, stamping them in red with the damning word that bought her passage on the next train to Hell . . . “I’m no Jew,” she told the boy. “Please don’t say that again.” Hurt flashed in his eyes. Stella felt shamed by her defection, as though she’d left him alone to the fate of their race. Yet there was no choice but to lie; she wouldn’t burden him with that kind of secret. She couldn’t risk another . . . She offered him a contrite smile. “I’d still like to be your friend, Joseph. I’ll need one in this place.”
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His features brightened with a child’s ready acceptance. “I’ll have to teach you the rules,” he said. “The first is, stay away from Captain Hermann. He hits the prisoners with his fists.” The boy cocked his head. “And you look like a prisoner, Fräulein.” Stella flushed. “Anything else I should know?” “There’s Sergeant Koch and Lieutenant Brucker. They just like to hurt people.” His gaze skittered to the floor. “Especially the older ones who can’t defend themselves.” “And the children, Joseph?” she whispered, glancing at his angry scab. He wouldn’t look at her. “Children too.” Stella swayed as she crouched against the floor; images exploded in her mind. Anna’s sweet face . . . brightest, most beautiful star at Dachau’s makeshift school . . . Anna . . . her own precious child after Bella Horowitz died . . . Anna . . . small, trembling hands . . . holding up a piece of cloth, a blouse to cover Stella’s nakedness as the guards dragged her toward the shooting pit . . . Anna . . . those little hands dragged behind Stella . . . an explosion of gunfire . . . “Noooo!” she cried, pulling the surprised boy into her arms. Grief overwhelmed her as she held him close, the way she would never again hold Anna; offering comfort and needing to be comforted . . . His small body stiffened an instant, then clung to her with unspoken ferocity. The two were strangers, yet in that moment they were more closely linked in their desire for human touch than any bond of blood. Stella pressed her cheek to the unruly brown curls at the side of his head, so baby soft against her skin. “Where are your parents?” she finally managed to ask. “Dead,” he whispered. “Mama and Papa got real sick while we were at Neuengamme.” Cold crept along her spine. “Neuengamme?” “A work camp. Near Hamburg, I think.”
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 For Such a Time

“How did you get here?” “Herr Van dee Moss said I could be his assistant. He was a famous painter in Amsterdam, so they let us both come to Theresienstadt. He died last summer.” The child’s words trailed off against her shoulder. Stella could only hug him again. He finally raised his face to her. “Will you pray for my mama and papa . . . even though they were Jews?” How could she tell him God had abandoned their people? “I’ll pray,” she lied, holding back her bitterness. “On my honor, I’ll look out for you while you are here.” Stella’s eyes burned at his earnest expression. Suddenly he seemed much older than ten. “Thank you, Joseph. I’m proud to know a man who still values honor.” He flushed at her praise. “Please, we must go. Herr Kommandant is waiting.” Stella rose from the bed, nauseated at the prospect of returning downstairs. “Give me a minute.” She then went to the bathroom to wash most of the dirt and dried blood from her body. Downstairs, glassware and silver clinked as they arrived at the archway connecting the kitchen and dining areas. A silver-haired woman wearing a bright green neckerchief with her black-andwhite service uniform bustled back and forth between the two rooms. She halted before Stella and then raised a questioning brow at the boy. “Helen,” Joseph explained, “meet Fräulein Muller.” To Stella, he said, “She doesn’t speak, but she hears real good.” “Helen.” Stella forced a smile and offered a hand in greeting. The other woman made no move to reciprocate and merely eyed her with derision. A water kettle on the stove whistled. Smells of sauerkraut, fried onions, and something rancid seized Stella’s nostrils as she waited with mounting humiliation. Only when she started to
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withdraw her hand did the stout woman brusquely wipe her own on the apron and thrust it at her. Helen didn’t smile but merely jerked her head in acknowledgment and returned to her tasks. Stella’s face burned. She raised a self-conscious hand to the stubble at her scalp. “Don’t worry.” Joseph squeezed her arm. “She’s like that with everyone.” Stella eyed him dubiously. She’d bet money the woman didn’t treat the colonel that way. Helen swept back by them long enough to tug at a lock of Joseph’s hair. She pointed to the dining room. “Come, Fräulein. Supper is ready. I’ll fetch Herr Kommandant.” He pulled Stella through the archway into the dining room before disappearing around the corner. Helen might not be personable, but she set a beautiful table. Stella eyed the snowy linen tablecloth. Two complete settings of silver-rimmed china were placed at either end, while a milk-glass vase of holly, ripe with crimson berries, stood in the center. A pair of beeswax candles burned along either side, dancing light off polished brass holders. A basket of fresh bread sat alongside the centerpiece. Stella touched the rim of the basket, willfully resisting temptation as she gazed into the flames. Similar candles once gleamed in her own home on the eve of Shabbat. She recalled the reverent anticipation as her uncle made Kiddush over their wine, declaring holiness to God’s day of rest. Afterward he would uncover and bless the Challah, bread that God had provided them in the desert— “Fräulein, you will sit here.” The colonel called to her from the opposite end of the table. Stella snatched her hand away. This wasn’t Challah or Shabbat. Not in the Jew Killer’s house. Overwhelmed by a sudden avalanche of anger, she marched toward the chair he held for her. Nazis were the worst kind
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 For Such a Time

of thieves. They took everything, from the rabbi’s Tallit—his prayer shawl—to the last matzo wrapper, until nothing of Jewishness remained. They had destroyed synagogues, families, lives. Faith . . . “Have you met Helen?” The colonel leaned to push in her chair. Stella stiffened, assailed by his nearness, the spiced scent of his cologne. She glanced at the aproned woman carrying in a water pitcher and glasses. “Ja, Herr Kommandant,” she whispered. The colonel took his place at the head of the table. “Helen is not only my housekeeper, but she is also my best-kept secret.” His remark drew both women’s attention. “She’s the finest cook in all of Europe. I’ve considered sending her to the Front, armed with her baked Apfelstrudel. The smell alone would entice a legion of soldiers to follow her into battle.” Helen’s cheeks flushed as she served them drinks. “She won’t be leading battalions, however.” He turned to Stella. “You will be her newest target, Fräulein—pastries, pies, dumplings, whatever it takes. We’ll start you out with smaller portions, but I want you healthy as soon as possible.” Why? Stella wanted to ask. Even Helen looked surprised. Yet the housekeeper merely met his glance and nodded before leaving the room. “You do understand your part in this arrangement?” Stella took great pains to smooth her napkin over her lap. “Eating.” “And . . . ?” She felt heat crawl up her neck. “Keeping it down.” “Ah, your honesty, if not your enthusiasm, is refreshing.” An amused gleam lit his eyes, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Helen reappeared with a platter of steaming food. Taking the colonel’s words to heart, she served Stella a small helping of fried onions, sauerkraut, and a meat-stuffed bell pepper. Stella’s insides cramped with hunger, before she
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detected the peculiar odor she’d smelled earlier in the kitchen. Not beef . . . “Helen prepared this Gefüllte Paprika the Austrian way,” he said from his place at the table. “You should find it quite delicious.” Pork. Stella stared at her plate, her stomach raging between hunger and a sudden queasiness. She picked up her fork and pushed aside the pepper before nibbling at her onions and sauerkraut. “You will sample everything, Fräulein.” She glanced up at the colonel’s mutinous expression. “I . . . I cannot.” “Cannot? Or will not? Helen has gone to much trouble to prepare this meal. And considering what you’ve had to eat in the past, I would expect you to be grateful.” She lowered her gaze. “I am, it’s . . . it’s just the bell pepper. I get hives,” she lied. “Besides, I’m not very hungry.” “I don’t care if you’re hungry or not,” he said, ignoring her statement. “You may leave the pepper, but eat the filling.” She poked at the stuffed pepper and eyed the rest of her meal wistfully. She’d been starved at Dachau; the Nazis used hunger as a weapon, making the weak fall victim to disease and death, while the strong grew feeble enough to be easily managed. Shame pricked her. Any of those still suffering in that place would gladly eat dog were it roasted on a spit and served up to them. “ And the meek shall inherit the land . . .” Only the strong survived in it. Stella took a bite of the pork and resisted an urge to gag. Three more and her stomach roiled. “I’m sorry.” Her fork clattered onto the plate. “No more—” “That wasn’t so terrible, was it?” he cajoled. “Soon you’ll regain your strength.” Despair swept through her like an icy wind. He’d made her defile herself before God.
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 For Such a Time

“You’ll need new clothing for your position as my secretary. Helen will find you a suitable wardrobe.” She barely heard him. It was she who had remained faithful; now she’d failed. “You’re exhausted.” He rose from his place at the table and moved around behind her. “Upstairs with you. Get some sleep. Morning will arrive soon enough.” Helen had returned with a tray of cheese and dried fruit. “Helen, please help Fräulein Muller to her room,” he ordered. “I can manage.” Yet as Stella started to rise, her knees gave out. She grabbed at his arm to keep from falling. “You’re so thin, and much too weak,” he said gruffly. “Helen will help until you’re stronger. Meanwhile, I won’t have you falling down and cracking your skull.” “Please, I’m fine.” She hated being treated like a child, or worse, like an invalid. She pulled away and walked carefully toward the stairs. On the wall at the foot of the landing she spied a painting she hadn’t noticed before. Larger than the watercolor in her room, the oil-on-canvas scene was also quite different. Snowcapped peaks—the Bavarian Alps, she guessed—rose behind a castle of gray rock and mortar that lay nestled in a green meadow. Hazy clouds drifted in a blue sky, and beyond the meadow stood a monastery, its bell tower visible in the distance. Oddly she found the image comforting. Stella imagined the rich, loamy smell of grass as the cry of a solitary bell chimed the hour. Her home in Mannheim’s bustling city had differed greatly from this pastoral scene. Again she felt a violent longing for what she’d lost: her uncle and their cheery apartment above his shop on the Roonstrasse; her clerk’s job at the printing press manufacturer, Schnellpressen AG, in neighboring Heidelberg; her best friend, Marta Kurtz. Parties. Music. They were all gone, as if her former life had never existed except in dreams.
42

 K a t e B r e s l i n

Only uncertainty remained. Tangible, oppressive, it weighed her down like a shackle, knowing that someday she would be caught in a lie or cause some slight. Or perhaps there would be no reason at all, simply that this new monster would grow tired of her. When that happened, not even God could save her. She reached for the banister, pulling her exhausted body up the stairs. Maybe it would have been better to die.

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